Archive for the ‘History and Archaeology’ Category

Archaeology Inside and Out

April 12, 2017

Back in January, I had a request that I update you folks on Jim’s latest dig.  Since the project has now moved into Phase Two, I have accumulated some material that I hope will prove interesting.

The dig is located at the site of the former Judge Steve Herrera County Court Building in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  With the opening of the new county court building, this location is going to be turned to other uses.

Indoor Excavation

Santa Fe County has some of the most stringent regulations for archeological clearance in the state so, even though there has been a structure on the site, archeological clearance is required.  This is not as crazy as it may seem.  At the time this structure was built, local ordinances for archeological clearance were not in place.

Santa Fe has been settled for a long time – at least as we North Americans record human occupations.  The Spanish took up residence in the area in the early 1700s.  Various groups of Indians had been living there long before.  In fact, directly across Grant Street (to the east), there was a pueblo that had been occupied in the 1300s and 1400s.

A few years ago, when the Santa Fe Civic Center was being built, work was halted when construction crews encountered a large number of human remains.  The county was determined that this project would not experience similar costly work stoppages.  That’s why the attached picture shows members of Jim’s crew hard at work inside the building.

This wasn’t nearly as cushy a job as you might think.  In January, in Santa Fe, the temperatures were colder inside the building than outside, where the sun at least gave the illusion of warmth.  Holes were cut in the concrete flooring, so those doing the digging were forced into some very awkward spaces.  Since the usual stratigraphy couldn’t give any clue of where artifacts might be found, extensive screening was necessary to confirm whether or not anything was there.

After a great deal of hard labor, Jim’s crews confirmed that the area directly under the building appears to have been sufficiently disturbed that when the constructions crews move in they shouldn’t encounter any unpleasant or expensive surprises.

In addition to working inside in freezing weather, Jim’s crew had another interesting challenge.  SWAT police teams had been given permission to use portions of the vacant building for team training exercises, so for a day the location was a very surreal place, with uniformed SWAT officers racing around, while Jim’s crew kept out of their way.

Both Phase One and the ongoing Phase Two include outdoor work as well.  While the soil directly under the building didn’t yield anything significant, the outdoor excavations found traces of several of the uses to which the area had been put over the years.

Before we get into that, it’s probably a good idea to explain how archeologists go about digging an urban site.  Most of the outdoor areas were covered either by asphalt or concrete.  This had to be cleared away and the areas fenced, often stirring great (and not always polite) indignation on the part of county workers who found their long-time parking spaces were no longer available to them.

To clear away the asphalt and upper levels of dirt, a backhoe is used.  This doesn’t mean that the archeologists get to sit back and relax while the machines do the hard work.  In order that not the least artifact or trace of a structure will be missed, at least two crew members are posted to monitor the digging.  Monitoring is a job that takes both skill and intense concentration.  Whenever anything anomalous is spotted, the backhoe operator must be immediately stopped and a closer inspection instituted.   The backhoe is also used to make deep trenches to expose larger features, such as walls.

In the past, the site had been the location of a dormitory associated with a Presbyterian boarding school and, before that, a Spanish colonial residence.  As the digging began, evidence of the school showed up in the form of inkwells, marbles, and eventually a section of massive foundations of the wall.  The crew also found arrowheads, musket balls, bits of pottery, and animal bones that might have been associated with the school or the earlier residence.

One day, Karen spotted something white in the dirt.  Signaling the backhoe to stop, she jumped down and came up with a piece of bone.  When this was checked by the osteolgist at the lab, it was confirmed to be human bone.  This meant the police had to be contacted.  Given that the bone came from beneath what had been solid asphalt, in place for many years, the police decided that this was not evidence of a crime and returned it to join the other artifacts.

Once again, multiple uses of the building added a surreal element to the excavation.  This week, a unit from the Longmire television show was on site, filming a portion of a future episode.  On Monday morning, when Jim arrived at the site and walked to where he needed to unlock doors for his crew, he had to make his way through a group of actors being briefed on what they’d be doing that morning.

Everyone turned to look, obviously wondering if he was a late-arrived extra, already in costume.  Doubtless, they were trying to figure out exactly what part of the script called for a burly, bearded archeologist in realistically dirt and sweat-stained attire.

Phase Two is only just getting into its full swing, and is likely to go on for at least another four weeks.  After that, Phase Three will focus on the remains of another building associated with the school.  I’ll let you know what else they find.

If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll pass them along to Jim and post his replies here.

Off to Pittsburgh!

June 29, 2016

Last week, Jim and I spent several days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  There’s nothing like travel to remind you how varied the U.S. can be.  We left Albuquerque during a series of dry days where temperatures topped 105  degrees, then arrived in Pittsburgh to rain and 72 degrees.

Me, Scot, and Jane Among the Dinos

Me, Scot, and Jane Among the Dinos

On Friday, our friends Scot and Jane Noel picked us up and took us to see some of the sights of downtown Pittsburgh.  As you may recall, I worked with both Scot and Jane on the computer game Chronomaster.  After the game was released, we stayed in touch. Since then, we have worked on a variety of projects, including an art contest for which I wrote the short story “Born from Memory” to go with the first place winning piece.

Last time we saw Scot and Jane was in New Mexico where we took them to see various things, including the petroglyphs near our house.  This time, the sights were a lot greener and more brightly colored.  We started at the Phipps Conservatory which amazed and delighted us with its marvelous variety of plants and sculptures.  Again I was fascinated by what a difference a shift in climate can make when growing the same plants.   I grow Swiss chard, but I’ve never had any success with the “Bright Lights” variety.  At Phipps, not only were they successful, their chard had leaves big enough to wrap a baby in!

After we’d finished with the Conservatory, we moved on to sample the Carnegie Museum.  We didn’t have time to see anything close to all of the exhibits, but we very much enjoyed the dinosaurs, gems and minerals, and a few other fascinating and beautiful things.  We also enjoyed what we saw of Pittsburgh itself, especially the widely varied architecture and numerous bridges and tunnels.

On Saturday, my sister, Susan, and two of her kids took us to Meadowcroft rock shelter.  In the world of archeology, Meadowcroft is famous for being one of the places where their discoveries broke the “Clovis first” theory of human habitation in the New World, pushing back the span of human habitation by several thousand years.

We were extremely lucky that James Adavasio, who directed the excavations at Meadowcroft, was in the area and giving a lecture.  Adavasio is an excellent speaker, with a wide breadth of interests.  One of the elements of his talk was showing how the theories put forth in early archeology – in which the work was done almost solely by men – were shaped by the male perspective to the point of ignoring the contributions of women and children.  He managed to be humorous, as well as informative.  I know that Jim and I enjoyed the subsequent tour all the more for having heard his talk.

Afterwards, we toured a model Indian village complete with a variety of dwellings.  I found myself taking feverish mental notes (and asking Jim to take a few photos) of some of the different types of shelters.   We also had a chance to throw atlatl darts at a deer-shaped target.  We all missed…  According to the docent, this meant we should all have only salad for dinner, as a reminder of how hard it can be to put meat on the table.

The weekend wasn’t all museums, conservatories, and academic lectures, of course.  We went and watched my young nephew play baseball, hiked, talked about books, and even played Clue.  This last led to us renting and watching the very silly movie based on the game…

I discovered that, after something like thirty years, I still remember how to play badminton.  Jim’s whiffle ball pitching got a thumbs-up from our baseball loving nephew.

Now that we’re back in New Mexico, those rolling green hills and that strange atmospheric phenomenon called “rain” seem more like myths than reality.  And I have a short story to review.

Funny thing.  Much as I enjoyed my holiday, I’m looking forward to getting back to the writing.  Life is pretty sweet.

Puye Cliffs

May 22, 2013

Ever wonder what it might be like to live in a cave?  Last weekend, when Jim and I drove out to Puye Cliffs to participate in their Open House, I had a chance to examine that question up close and personal.

Doorways in the Rock

Doorways in the Rock

As so often on such expeditions, our friend Michael Wester was with us.  During the nearly two hour drive north from Albuquerque, our conversation ranged from the prehistoric peoples who had occupied the land over which we traveled, to the very modern issues of  computer technology, to the role of entropy in the choices we make.  The weather noticeably cooled as we moved north.  The pale green of the cottonwoods showed as a pale ribbon of green that meandered through the darker greens of the pinyon and juniper, contrasting against the golden brown of rock and sand.

When we arrived at Puye (pronounced “poo-yay”), the cliffs dominated the landscape, their color shifting from grey-brown to almost golden, depending on the light.  Since the day was partly cloudy, we had ample opportunity to enjoy the shifting hues and enjoy the crisp mid-morning air.

For the first hour or so of our visit, we observed the cliffs from below.  The small Puye Cliffs museum and gift shop occupies a former Harvey House, built in the 1930’s to cater to tourists who found the newly expanding railroad a wonderful way to explore the Wild West.  According to the brochure, “puye” means “place where the rabbits gather,” a name that provides at least one indication as to why the area was originally settled.

As part of the Open House, Jim was giving a flintknapping demonstration.  As he used hammer stones and  pieces of deer antler to break off flakes that might eventually be turned into arrowheads, I helped by explaining what he was doing to groups which included both residents of Santa Clara pueblo and tourists in for the day.

In between batches of visitors, I soaked in Chuck Hannaford’s explanations of the various primitive tools and weapons that are part of the kit used in the educational outreach program sponsored by the Office of Archaeological Studies where Chuck and Jim both work.  I already knew that the arrowhead was considered the “disposable” part of a spearhead or atlatl dart.  However, many of the creative ways the primitive weapons makers had come up with to preserve the valuable straight wooden shafts were new to me.

Several tour groups came and went, then it was our turn to ascend the cliffs.

Our guide was Sam, a big burly man from Santa Clara pueblo, the Tewa group that is descended from the original inhabitants of these cliffs.  There is still some debate as to where the inhabitants of Puye Cliffs came from originally.  Some say they came from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  However, many archeologists now feel the inhabitants were present in the Rio Grande valley long before the migrations from further north.  Either way, Sam’s ancestors have lived in this region for thousands of years.

The cliff dwellings were in use when the Spanish came into New Mexico in 1598, although much of the population had moved into the lowlands where there was better farming and more water.    During the pueblo revolt of 1680, the cliffs became one of the strongholds of the revolt.  Today, the caves are vacant.  However, Sam’s tour was sprinkled with anecdotes related to his own childhood, of visiting the cliffs with his father (who was also a guide) and of splashing with his brother in the water held in a catch basin built by his long-ago ancestors to supply their needs.

Puye Cliffs are made from relatively soft volcanic tuff – a stone formed from dense concentrations of volcanic ash.  In this case, the ash was supplied by the explosion that created the Valles Caldera, a massive explosion that scattered debris as far as Kansas and Louisiana.  The tuff could be easily hollowed out, making small caves that held heat in the winter and remained cool in the summer.  The interior of these caves was plastered to help improve the natural insulation.  Where the rocky shelf outside the caves permitted, blocks of tuff were used as bricks to make more roomy habitations.  Although these exterior structures were gone, we could still see the holes in the cliff face where the narrow logs used to support the roofs had once rested.

Since the cliff dwellings occupied several levels connected by ladders, they reminded me of apartment buildings.  As we walked along the trail, Sam pointed out various petroglyphs etched into the stone.  In many cases, the pictures were the clan signs of the group that had occupied that particular area.  Sometimes more than one clan sign was displayed side by side  and may have indicated closely related clans.

Sam pointed out places where the interior of the caves had been sculpted to make living more comfortable.  Among the most common adaptations were hollowed areas meant to hold water jugs.  As Sam explained with a grin, water was very precious and in those relatively crowded spaces, it would be all too easy for an overactive child to spill the supplies.  One of my favorite caves was the one where a weaver had once lived.  Two holes in the wall showed where the top of the loom had been anchored.

The cliff dwellings were not the only place the inhabitants resided.  On top of the mesa was a sprawling pueblo (now little more than a mound with scattered courses of blocks indicating where the rooms once stood).   Here, too, were the kivas – the rounded buildings in which sacred dances and other rituals were held.  All of this was framed by wide reaching views over the green forests, to the surrounding mountains.

Today, it is hard to imagine the vibrant community that once must have lived here.  The quiet, windswept areas seem to belong very much to the snakes, rabbits, and birds that we glimpsed.   One of Sam’s favorite stories was about the mountain lion who rambled among the caves just last year.  Needless to say, tours were halted until the puma moved on, but Sam showed us a place where the big cat had leapt to use one of the ladders, scraping its claws against the soft stone, leaving its own mark to join the petroglyphs of the former inhabitants.

I found myself wondering what it would have been like to live at Puye.  Would I have chosen one of the cave dwellings, neat and snug, caught between earth and sky?  Would I have preferred to live on top of the mesa where the views stretch seemingly forever?

I’m not sure which would have been better..  I do know that I’ll go back someday.  Maybe then I’ll decide.

Steam Engine Stripped

April 11, 2012

Ever seen a steam engine stripped to its shell?  Toward the end of last week, Jim and I had the opportunity to do just that when we visited where Engine 2926 is being restored by a group of talented train enthusiasts belonging to the New

Ken and 2926

Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society.

Our guide, Ken Dusenberry, started us out by showing us the already completed tender.  The tender – for those of you who (like me) don’t know much about trains – is where the water and oil is carried.  This one was equipped to hold 24,500 gallons of water and over 7,000 gallons of oil.  Looking at the tender, bright and shiny in its fresh coat of paint, it was hard to believe that this was a machine dating from 1944, built to support transportation of troops and supplies for WWII.

Quick historical aside here…  Yes.  Steam engines were already becoming outdated by 1944, in the process of being replaced by diesel-electric engines.  However, WWII influenced what engines went where.  To paraphrase Ken Dusenberry, “In 1944, just about every diesel engine was going into a submarine somewhere.  That’s why this train was built for steam.”

After we viewed the tender, Ken took us through to where the steam engine itself was being restored.  Jim and I had seen it a few years back, and even though it was obviously old (Engine 2926 sat for many years out in the open in a park in Albuquerque) it had a certain dignity and grandeur.  This was a very different machine.

The cab had been removed.  So had the outer plating.  This left the brown metal exposed to inspection.  Grids had been drawn all over the body, sections within the grid neatly numbered.  Pipes and bolts were clearly visible.  Such a job could not have been done out of doors in many other places in the United States.  However, Albuquerque’s very dry climate meant that what rust the engine had accumulated was minimal – and the worst of it dated back to those years as a park ornament, when watering the park’s lawn meant the engine got sprayed with water a few times a week.

I’m not going to even try to summarize all the details we heard in Ken’s intricate and informative talk.  However, I can say I came out of it with a great deal more appreciation for how intricate a piece of technology a steam engine is.  I suppose, having seen them in old movies, having heard one too many stories about little boys staring at tea kettles on the boil and dreaming up steam engines, I thought they were fairly simple.  No such thing!

As I listened to Ken talk about the various people who had worked on the project, about their contributions, not only of time and money, but of knowledge as well, I began to realize something else.  Even in this day and age of written records, knowledge gets lost very easily.  By “knowledge” I mean something more complicated than mere information.  By “knowledge” I’m talking about the combination of experience and information that comes together to tell someone that a machine (or anything else) is working right.

Over and over again, Ken mentioned how important were the contributions of people who had worked on other engines or who had worked in some capacity or other on working steam engines.  This last category provided particular treasures.  As Ken put it, “When we hear that someone actually worked on a steam engine – or even better, drove one – we grab that person and drag him off, then start asking questions.”

All this got me thinking…  A popular sub-genre of SF (and some Fantasy, too) deals with the rediscovery of lost technology.  In these tales, the old machine is found.  The characters in the story want to get it up and running again.  Sometimes they find the old instruction manuals, sometimes they’ve just “heard” about how the old machines worked, sometimes there’s an old computer around from which information can be scavenged.

Having listened to what Ken and his associates have gone through in their restoration of Engine 2926, I suspect this is a very simplistic picture.  They’re working on a machine that was built in 1944 and ran for some years thereafter.  In these stories, the “lost” technology is often hundreds or thousands of years old.  I can’t help but think that, while the information might be available, the “knowledge” about the finer points would have been lost.

Told right, though, figuring out the missing parts of the picture could make for a gripping story.  Has anyone written something like that recently?  Any titles you could recommend?  How would you figure out how to launch that ancient space ship you just happen to find in your backyard?

Spaceport Archeologist

August 17, 2011

Spaceport America, August 2011

Over the last three months, Jim has been senior project director for an archeological project at the location of the new Spaceport America in the Jornada del Muerto, about an hour outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

It’s made for an interesting summer for both of us.  Jim would leave early on Monday morning and get home in the evening on Friday.  In between, he and his crew would be out in temperatures that regularly topped a hundred degrees, with no shade or water except what the crew brought in themselves.

The area they were looking at has seen human occupation for something like 11,000 years, starting with the prehistoric Folsom and ending with the ground side of human ventures into outer space.  Until recently, most of that occupation was relatively transient.  The area isn’t very inviting.  Jornada del Muerto is usually translated as “journey of the dead man.”  The name is said to be a reference to the fatal journey of Bernardo Gruber.

When Jim and his crew got down there in May, the winter and spring had been so dry that not even weeds were growing.  Tenacious mesquite was about the only plant in sight.  Although this offered a little shade, Jim’s crew couldn’t be all that grateful, since mesquite also has thorns that will puncture a truck tire or go right through the bottom of a hard-soled boot.

So what sort of human activity went on in this hot, dry area?  Mostly hunting and gathering.  Mesquite beans (actually seeds) are a good source of calories, so they were probably being gathered.  The crew found ample evidence of stone tools, including a fair number of broken Folsom points.  They found locations where shelters had been erected.  They also found some fire pits, probably used for roasting tubers.

They actually won’t know what they found until they finish the lab work.  Contrary to popular views of archeology, field work is only part of the job.  Much of the actual discovery is done in the lab.

Jim’s crew was in many ways representative of those working in Southwestern archeology.  Gender was slightly biased toward female – with five females and three males.  Jim’s co-director was a woman.  Ethnically, they had five Anglos, two Navajo, and one Spaniard.  (All Americans, of course.)  Education ranged from several post-graduate degrees (including one law degree) to high school level.

The one way the crew was not representative was in age.  All but one of the crew members was over fifty.  Several were over sixty.  Only one was under forty!  This was because the office was also fielding a crew down at Cooke’s Peak, where a lot of climbing was part of the daily routine, so the younger staff got shifted there, while the older staff got sent to bake in the desert.

Looking for artifacts was only part of the job.  They noted plants and wild animals in the area.  Early mornings during their drive out to the site, they often saw various small rodents, antelope, mule deer, rabbits, and coyotes.  Rarer sightings included badger, ring-tail, and fox.  Oh, and rattlesnakes…  The area is really inviting for rattlesnakes.  Both Jim and his co-director, Nancy, wore snake gaiters when checking out new sites.

As the summer progressed, tarantulas wandered in to find out what was going on.  One of my favorite stories came from an encounter with these furry spiders.  Jim had stopped to check in with the folks at construction headquarters.  The fellow he was talking to asked, “Is the tarantula out there still?  Do you have a shovel you could use to shift it for us?  We don’t mind it, but some of the female visitors get scared.”  Jim laughed and replied, “I’ll see what we can do.  My female crew members are out taking pictures of the spider.”

For such a barren area, there was a considerable amount of avian life.  Jim reported several types of hawks.  One of my favorites was the nighthawk which, upon research, turned out to be defined as an “aberrant goatsucker.”  That is, most birds in the goatsucker family are nocturnal, but nighthawks will fly by day, making them aberrant.  Don’t ask me why…  I thought this was very funny.

Working at the spaceport offered challenges archeologists don’t usually face – like the week they had to change plans because the site they were working on was right in a launch path.  However, overall, Jim’s crew was delighted to be so near the spaceport.  They watched as the main building grew and changed color, went out to investigate the massive runway, and basically enjoyed being part of the transition between the oldest of human endeavors, just finding enough to eat, and the newest – reaching for the stars.

But we’re both glad to have Jim home again.  It will be fun to hear how the lab analysis progresses, to learn what might have been cooked in those huge fire pits, and all the rest.  And in a few months, Jim may have another field project starting up, but that one, rather than being in the outlying areas of the state, will be much closer to home – right off the Santa Fe Plaza.

Retro Isotopes

July 27, 2011

This past Saturday, Jim and I went to a minor league baseball game:

Loyal Tigers' Fan

Albuquerque’s Isotopes were playing the New Orleans Zephyrs. Well, sort of…

Since this was “Retro” night, schizophrenia reigned on the field. The sign boards read “Isotopes,” but stenciled into the dirt behind home plate was “Dukes.” To make up for this, the electronic “chat line” on the score board periodically ran a border containing the old Dukes logo. The players wore old-style Dukes uniforms, but the mascot was the Isotopes very odd alien “Orbit.” However, the fight song was one composed for the Dukes.

All extremely confusing but rather fun. The reason for Retro Night is that until 2003 Albuquerque’s team was the Dukes. Some people have never resigned themselves to the change. Why Dukes? Historical reasons, say the die-hards, and these historical roots are why there should never be a change.

Historical? This is the United States. Surely there were never reigning dukes, not even in these originally Spanish-held territories?

Ah, hah! But the city of Albuquerque was named for a Spanish duke, the Duke of Alburquerque (yes, the extra “r” is intentional), in the hope that his patronage would help the city prosper. I honestly don’t know if it did, but there is a marvelous banner featuring his coat of arms in the basement of the Albuquerque Museum, so it wasn’t entirely a wasted effort.

Okay… Why Isotopes?

Well, that’s more peculiar even than naming a team for a long-ago duke. It seems there was an episode of the television show The Simpsons where Albuquerque’s baseball team is incorrectly and humorously referred to as “the Isotopes.” When a name change was in the offing, Isotopes became the most popular choice. Either we have a lot of Simpsons fans here or some folks just thought it was a cute word. Maybe some thought a nod to one of the region’s most well-known industries – atomic research – was due.

For whichever reason, Albuquerque now boasts a sports team named for a throw-away line in a television cartoon. New Mexico is very good at odd names… For example, we have an entire town named for the old-time game show “Truth or Consequences.” Honestly. Look it up.

My husband Jim is a serious baseball fan. He still roots for the Detroit Tigers after living in New Mexico for most of his adult life. Those of you who know anything about the Tigers’ rankings these past several years (they’re doing a bit better this year) know that being a Tigers’ fan is a sign of tenacity. I’ve always thought Jim’s fidelity to his less than stellar team was a good indication of his strength of character.

I, on the other hand, am not a serious baseball fan. I grew up in D.C. when our Nation’s Capitol lacked a baseball team – this despite baseball then being widely viewed as our National Sport. When I went to college in New York, I started to follow baseball, since several of my closest friends were baseball fans and otherwise I couldn’t keep up with the conversation.

I’m not saying I didn’t know the basics before then: hit the ball, run hard, three strikes you’re out, all that. However, the esoterica of RBIs, ERAs, and the rest of the alphabet soup that true baseball fans love to toss around was unintelligible. After I left New York, I didn’t follow baseball much, but enough of what I had learned had stayed with me so that I could go to the Isotopes game and really enjoy myself.

I suppose for a hard-core fan, the game we attended wouldn’t be considered very good. Not one of the many, many pitchers who trooped up to the mound were in control of the ball. The fielding was thankfully a lot stronger. The score would have resembled that of a football game if not for their efforts.

Those of us in the stands weren’t denied opportunities to go after the ball. Foul balls showered down like rain . We began to think that we were in some new version of the outfield – and our seats were just slightly to the right of home plate!

The game started off badly for the Isotopes because their young pitcher seemed to believe his goal was to make it as easy as possible for batters to hit the ball. He gave up two runs in the first inning. Then another. That nervous state of affairs lasted until suddenly the Zephyrs’ pitcher decided his job was to make the Isotopes’ pitcher feel better about himself by giving away hit after hit. The score mounted on the Isotopes’ side. Then the Zephyrs scored.

However, the Isotopes began to establish a very large lead – although not always because of great hitting or even because of hitting at all. There were some fascinating errors, including one that ended up with the catcher for the Zephyrs scrabbling on hands and knees after a ball that was skittering to the rear right of the plate.

We Isotopes fans were complacently anticipating a win, followed by the fireworks that were to end the evening’s entertainment, when things started going terribly wrong. The Zephyrs didn’t play much better, but the Isotopes played much, much worse. By the ninth inning, the score had crept up to eleven to nine. Bases loaded, full count. (That is, two strikes, three balls, and so no room left for fooling around).

The Isotopes pitcher decided that no one should be sleepy for the fireworks, so to wake everyone up, he walked the next batter. The score was now eleven to ten. Bases were still loaded. Once again, the pitcher brought it to full count. We were all standing now. In honor of Retro Night, the chant of “Dukes! Dukes! Dukes!” was thundering across the field. Behind us, someone pathetically said, “But I want the fireworks…”

Maybe all that yelling of “Dukes” actually inspired the pitcher to live up to past standards. Maybe he, too, just wanted to watch the fireworks. For whatever reason, he pitched neatly across the plate. The batter hit into a double play. Out! Out! Cheers and howls of relief.

Then we settled down to the fireworks – really, really good ones – fired off to the ear-blasting accompaniment of the themes from old television shows. (Retro Night, remember?) The grand finale was performed to the stirring notes of the original Star Trek theme. Turns out that music goes really well with explosions… As if after that game we needed to get our heart rates up!

Didn’t Happen

May 25, 2011

The world didn’t end last Saturday. I wasn’t really surprised. Just within my

Entertaining Endings

lifetime, the end of the world has been predicted a bunch of times.

The end of the millennium caused a wide variety of predictions as to how the world was going to end. As I recall, the return of Haley’s Comet made many people nervous, too, for reasons I can’t recall at this late date.

There are also the less absolute “end of the world” predictions. I grew up during the Cold War. Back then, the threat of nuclear war made us school kids all wonder just how hard we should try to get good grades. After all, it seemed fairly likely that we weren’t going to get to grow up anyhow.

One of my favorites non-theological end of the world predictions was the Y2K fuss. That’s the one that said all the computers were going to crash all at once because of a flaw in the underlying calendar. At the very least, we were told, the banks were going to crash. If things got really bad, all the nuclear weapons would go off.

I heard about Y2K long before it became a trendy media pseudo-event when Gordon Garb made it the subject of  a presentation at Bubonicon, New Mexico’s Science Fiction convention. Gordon’s both a computer guru and a great speaker so he was the perfect person to make the threat seem very real. However, even as he unfurled all the reasons why Y2K could happen, I found myself thinking, “But the computer industry already knows the problem is there. Surely someone will work out a fix before all the banks crash and computer guidance systems go awry and everything goes to hell.”

Maybe that’s why end of the world predictions based on biblical or astrological or astronomical materials are so fascinating. The circumstances are beyond not only your control, but anyone’s control.

What fascinates me is that end of the world scenarios have entered what must be called “entertainment culture.” Print Science Fiction has frequently speculated on how the world might end, ranging through death by war, disease, asteroid, alien invasion, and a bunch of even less likely scenarios.

Even more popular are those books and movies that look at the end of the world as a neat challenge – neat, that is, if you’re one of those who get to survive and wear cool fur bikinis (as in the “Mad Max” movies) or rebuild the world from scratch (and presumably in your own image).

There have even been pop songs based on the premise. One of my favorites is David Bowie’s haunting “Five Years.” There’s also R.E.M.’s scarily perky “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” I believe the Carpenters sang about aliens warning us not to do anything dumb in “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Crafts.” I’m sure there are many other examples.

Oh… Let’s not forget the businesses that have developed to cater to apocalyptic interests – especially those where the world ends only for a small, select group. There are bumper stickers voicing various opinions on what a vehicle might do in case of “rapture.” Last week’s Wall Street Journal mentioned that one company offers to forward e-mails to your chosen list if you’re “raptured.” Another, staffed by atheists, promises to care for your pets if you’re taken bodily to heaven.

What is it that fascinates us so about not only the concept of the end of the world, but about these predictions? What keeps drawing people back, even when numerous expectations have been disappointed?

I guess the next big End of the World prediction is the one based on the ending cycle of the Mayan calendar in 2012. Anyone want to place a bet?

Rock By The Road

March 2, 2011

The other day, Jim and I decided to take advantage of a pleasant afternoon –

The Rock Itself

 New Mexico weather is nothing if not changeable – to go for a walk.

As we wandered along a path that had been my regular walking route before I got my bicycle, Jim said, “Isn’t this about the place you picked up that core?”

I nodded and pointed back to the approximate place, thinking about how sometimes a willingness to be wrong can show you how much you’ve actually learned.

It went like this… I used to walk pretty much the same route every day. One day, after a particularly heavy rain shower, I noticed a piece of stone that looked to me as if it had been worked. Now, you must understand, over the years Jim and I have been together, I’ve seen a lot of people bring him what they’re certain are arrowheads or stone tools of some sort. Jim is always unfailingly gracious, but with a very few exceptions, usually what he tells them is that what they have is actually just a bit of gravel or broken stone.

Still, after many days of looking at this piece, I went over and picked it up. It sure looked worked to me. I almost tossed it back. Then I decided to take it home. I figured Jim would tell me it was a naturally broken chunk of rock, but that in the process I’d learn a little more about stone tools.

After dinner that night, I showed Jim my “find,” reassuring him as I handed it over that I wouldn’t be in the least hurt if he told me it was broken gravel, that all I wanted to know was how he could tell the difference.

Jim turned the rock over in his hands a few times, grinned and said, “Yes. This is a core. I can’t be absolutely sure, but it looks like Pedernal chert.”

I blinked, completely astonished. “You mean I was right? It is an artifact?”

“Yes. A core. See here and here? This is where someone knocked pieces off.”

He went on to explain that this artifact probably wasn’t local, that such things are sometimes found where gravel has been mined and moved. Since the area where I’d found this core was near to both a road and a school, that was likely how it had come to be there.

Even so, I was pretty delighted. I realized I’d learned a lot in my casual studies of Jim’s lithics. I also realized I’d learned another lesson – one that was a whole lot more important. Don’t leave the rock by the road because you know you’re wrong. You might surprise yourself.

I bet just about everyone has their own rocks in the road. I’d love to hear about yours.

Xook

December 29, 2010

This past week while we were in Texas, Jim’s folks invited us to go with them

Xook

to see an exhibition called “Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea” at the Kimbell Art Museum.

We enjoyed the exhibition overall, although I will admit to a personal dislike for people who write captions telling you what you’re supposed to be seeing.

A fictional example: “This graceful figure holds out a basket of rolled tortillas in a welcoming fashion.” I look at the figure. It seems rather lumpish to me. Yes. It’s holding a basket and I’m willing to admit the contents may indeed be tortillas. However, I see nothing “welcoming” about the way the basket is being held. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the figure is not even holding them “out.” They seem tucked close to the body to me.

Leaving my complaints about captions aside, it was an interesting show. Art ranging from pottery to stone carvings to miniature figures had been chosen for their association with the water creatures, motifs, and the like. There were some interesting audio-visual additions as well.

One thing left us rather puzzled. Repeatedly, the helpful caption-writer informed us that sharks were called “xook.” (The “x” is pronounced like a harsh “sh” and the “oo” like the “oe” in “shoe.” English is a weird language; so are transliteration conventions).

The caption writer then happily told us (repeatedly) that the English word “shark” is derived from “xook.” I looked at Jim and said, “But what did people call sharks before then? I mean, aren’t sharks common world-wide?” Jim agreed that they were and surely there were other words in use.

When we got home, I looked up “shark” in the OED. It listed the first occupancy of “shark” as 1569, but the origin as uncertain. Jim checked an on-line etymological dictionary, which agreed both with the date in the 1560’s and with the uncertain origin. Once again, it seems that our friendly caption writer had been over-ambitious.

However, the caption writer may have been right. Cortez arrived in Central Mexico in 1520. The Spanish were involved in trying to conquer the Maya by the mid-1520’s. There are lots of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and it’s possible that helpful local residents did a lot of yelling warnings of “Xook! Xook!” and the word caught on with the Spanish.

Not being a Spanish-speaker, I can’t tell you what word the Spanish used for “shark,” but the English of the same time period most likely called those big carnivorous sea-creatures “dogfish.” Certainly, “xook” or “shark” would be a lot quicker to say and not as likely to be misunderstood. I can imagine it would quickly become fashionable.

Yelling “Shark!” rather than “Dogfish!” might even have saved a few lives…

Happy New Year to you all!

Coming of Age

December 8, 2010

Last week, a friend and I were talking about coming of age rituals. I was speculating about how such a ritual that might fit into a futuristic culture. My friend objected, saying “As a historian, my feeling is that such rituals pretty much die out as a culture becomes more technologically advanced.”

On some gut level, I found I was protesting this conclusion, but certainly my friend has a point. Even where “coming of age” rituals still exist – the Catholic sacrement of Confirmation springs to mind, as does the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah – these rituals are not part of the culture as a whole, merely part of the religious sub-culture.

That made me think. In pre-technological cultures, coming of age rituals were often linked to religion. The first example that I thought of is the Apache Da-i-da, a coming of age/ puberty ritual for young women. In this ritual, the girl would run various “races” (I use the word in a qualified sense since the girl often ran alone and was required less to maintain speed than to show herself as surefooted). When running her Da-i-da, the girl wore traditional clothing and was taught that she embodied White Painted Woman, one of the deities.

At the conclusion of her ordeal, the girl was considered able to bestow the blessings of White Painted Woman on those famiy and friends who had gathered to witness the ritual.

These puberty rituals did not die out with the coming of technology – or with the separation of religion and private life.

Among the Spanish-speaking cultures of New Mexico, the quinceaera, remains very important. I’ve read many articles in which modern practioners stress that, although to an outsider the quinceaera may look like nothing more than a big “coming out” party, many families emphasize that the celebrant now will be expected to assume a more adult role.

Maybe that’s the problem with modern “coming of age” rituals. Although the young person is told on a given day that day he or she is an adult and will be expected to take on an adult role, the next day he or she is relegated to a child’s role again. Maybe for the ritual to have any meaning, the responsibilities must change.

Certainly, the modern United States is conflicted on this issue. I started considering various events that many young people – robbed by our culture of genuine “coming of age” rituals – have substituted on their own.

First comes learning to drive. Depending on which state in which you live, you can get your driver’s license at as young as fourteen (although many of these are provisional licenses). However, that’s where the new responsibility stops. You’re considered “old enough” to operate a huge, heavy, dangerous piece of machinery that can travel at high speeds, but otherwise, you’re still a “kid.”

Turning eighteen is another landmark. At that point, you are considered old enough to vote. You can be drafted (if there is a draft) or enlist in the armed forces. If faced with criminal procedings, you’ll be tried as an adult. In most states, you can marry without needing the permission of your parents.

When I was in college, eighteen was also when you were also considered old enough to legally drink alcohol. What type of alcohol varied from state to state. In some states, only beer and wine were permitted. In others, a person of the same age could drink “hard” alcohol as well.

So another mixed message was sent. You’re an adult with enormous social responsibilities and privileges. Or are you?

Today, twenty-one is the final age-related landmark. At this point, even the provision against drinking alcohol is removed. However, do most celebrate this landmark with a decorous glass? No. Increasingly, twenty-first birthdays are an excuse for the exact opposite, for wild and rowdy displays of excess.

So, it seems to me that we’ve lost something along with our coming of age rituals. We’ve lost a sense of becoming adults, of assuming responsibilities. Instead, what has happened is that these various age-markers have become excuses for the assumption of “rights.” The declaration is not “Now I am a man” or “From this day on, I am a woman,” but “Hey, you can’t stop me. I’m legal.”

What do you folks think? Are coming of age rituals out-dated? Still present, but in different forms? In need of ressurection as a custom?

Let me know! Your opinions could shape a future project.